Online Commentary

Feb 01, 2022

Relativizing the success of China's "vaccine diplomacy"


The rivalry between the United States and China for global hegemony was sharpened long before the advent of covid-19. But the pandemic has become a new political arena in which this conflict is being played out. From Latin America, the impression long prevailed that Chinese mask diplomacy, the availability of its vaccines and the rapid recovery of its economy in 2020 would shift the balance of power to the detriment of the United States.

Few analysts would have contradicted the Economist Intelligence Unit's view in April 2021 that China had gained a clear advantage in vaccine diplomacy over the United States in Latin America. As of mid-May 2021, China had exported more than 250 million doses (42% of its total production), of which about 165 million went to Latin America.

The Chinese government has been very adept at marketing its vaccines and publicly staging its deliveries. And while only a small portion were donated, this was often blurred in public perception.

China has benefited from the US leadership vacuum. Until June 2021, the American power was not a major player in vaccine diplomacy. Only when the national vaccination campaign was advanced did the US start exporting and even donating vaccines from its accumulated surplus.

From a Chinese perspective, the playing field for vaccine diplomacy in Latin America changed significantly in the second half of 2021 when the U.S. and Europe began to have more vaccines available to the rest of the world. According to WTO and IMF vaccine trade tracking, taking the final production site ("fill and finish") of the vaccine as an indicator, the EU had a larger share (38.1%) of global Covid-19 vaccine trade in 2021 than China (35.9%) and the United States (13%). The EU exported 62.6% of its production and the United States 51.2% (with a sharp increase in December). In contrast, China, due to domestic demand, exported only 31.5% of its production.

In the case of South America, however, China is still the main supplier, both in sales and donations, but the European Union has regained ground. Giving a double weighting to vaccines requiring one dose (J&J and CanSino), as of the end of December China had supplied 36.4% of South America's doses, the EU 29.8%, the US 5.6% and Russia 4.4%.

Looking ahead, the picture looks different again with European and North American companies dominating the market. According to the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) Vaccine Tracker as of December 31, 2021, there are 1.172 billion doses of AstraZeneca, J&J, Pfizer-BioNTech, Novavax, Vaxxinty and Moderna, 433 million doses of Chinese vaccines (CanSino, Sinopharm, Sinovac) and 82 million doses of Russian vaccines (Sputnik) contracted, both insured and optional, by Latin American governments.

Although China likes to present itself as a great benefactor, it should be noted that most of the vaccine doses sent to Latin America were sold and not given away. The United States clearly surpasses China in vaccine donations. According to estimates based on various databases (PAHO, U.S. State Department, Duke Global Health Innovation Center), by the end of 2021 the U.S. had sent 53 million doses to Latin America for free, EU countries 11.5 million - Spain has contributed nine million - and China only five million.

How successful has China been with its vaccine diplomacy? It is necessary to distinguish, on the one hand, to what extent China has avoided a loss of reputation and, on the other hand, gained sympathy. It seems that China managed to avoid an image crisis at the beginning of the pandemic. China launched an assertive information policy through its embassies in Latin America to repudiate criticism of its handling of the pandemic and build a positive narrative.

Data from LAPOP's AmericasBarometer 2021 suggests that China had little success in turning mask diplomacy and the delivery of medical supplies and vaccines into sympathy gain in Latin America.

In contrast, after a dramatic decline during the Trump presidency, trust in the U.S. government rebounded under Biden and nearly returned to Obama-era levels. While in 2018/19 only 39% of Latin Americans surveyed trusted the U.S. government, the proportion increased to 57% in 2021. In contrast, trust in the Chinese government fell from 47 % to 38 %. In the vast majority of Latin American countries - with the exception of Haiti and Peru - there is greater trust in the United States than in the Chinese government.

The pandemic was a great opportunity for China to reduce Taiwan's influence in Latin America. Before the pandemic broke out, nine of the 15 sovereign states that maintained full diplomatic relations with Taiwan were in Latin America and the Caribbean. With the advent of the pandemic the Chinese government has relied on medical protection teams and later vaccines to convince these countries. But Beijing has not been very successful in its efforts to weaken Taiwan in the region.

No country has walked away from Taiwan in exchange for Chinese masks and vaccines. In the case of Paraguay, the only South American country that still maintains official relations with Taiwan, China has not succeeded. Nor in the case of Honduras. This would have been a great success for China.

The only country to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan during the pandemic was Nicaragua, which recently announced its decision. Although symbolically a Chinese plane with a donation of 200,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine landed at Managua airport on December 27, Nicaragua's decision was not triggered by China's vaccine diplomacy but by the growing international isolation of the Ortega regime and increasing pressure and new sanctions from the U.S. Moreover, the number of vaccine doses donated by China was modest compared to donations from Spain (1.7 million doses) and France (827,000 doses) in 2021.

China undoubtedly gained ground against the United States in Latin America well into the second year of the pandemic. However, this has had only limited geopolitical impact and has not led to an overall increase in sympathy for China in Latin America. The United States can still respond to the Chinese challenge and has regained ground with the Biden administration and its own vaccine diplomacy.

Bibliographic data

Nolte, Detlef. “Relativizing the success of China's "vaccine diplomacy".” February 2022.

This text was first published in Spanish on January 23, 2022 by Latinoamérica21